A Limited, Legacy Literacy: Reconfiguring Literary Sinitic as Hanmunkwa in Korea, 1876–1910

A Limited, Legacy Literacy: Reconfiguring Literary Sinitic as Hanmunkwa in Korea, 1876–1910
W. Scott Wells

Summary

Literary Sinitic literacy long sustained the ritual, cultural, and political modes of belonging that positioned Korea firmly within East Asia's sinographic cosmopolis. The promotion of vernacular literacy and the marginalization of Literary Sinitic that accompanied the social and political upheavals of the final decades of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), were a key element in Korea’s departure from this traditional cosmopolitan order.

This study shows that the changes to Korean literary and inscriptional practices in the three decades prior to Japanese colonization in 1910 were not the inevitable outcome of natural vernacularization processes. Rather, they were the result of deliberate education activities and policy decisions by interested parties, including the Korean court, Western missionaries, Korean traditionalist and nationalist scholars, and Japanese imperial officials.

Modern schools founded by the various interested parties above were a primary facilitator of inscriptional change. Though parents insisted that these schools include Literary Sinitic instruction, this instruction was limited to a single subject within a multi-subject curriculum. The aims, content, and methods of instruction within this new classroom subject, known as Hanmunkwa, departed significantly from those of traditional Literary Sinitic instruction. Nevertheless, Korean educators developed approaches to Hanmunkwa that still treated Literary Sinitic as the vehicle of a living, dynamic tradition. These approaches were greatly narrowed, however, through a program of textbook censorship implemented by Japanese education officials in the final years of the protectorate period (1905–1910). Shaped to meet political more than pedagogical ends, the content and methods of the Hanmunkwa instruction that resulted from this censorship reduced instruction to mere training in no more than a passive reading comprehension of excerpts from classical texts.

Japanese-controlled Hanmunkwa greatly limited the scope and application of Literary Sinitic literacy and was the beginning of the end of a living Literary Sinitic tradition in Korea, transforming it into a legacy literacy useful only in limited domains and providing nothing more than a level of backward compatibility with old knowledge. This study, therefore, offers a corrective to the common historiography of Korean language and literature that treats vernacularity as natural and Korean vernacularization as foreordained.

Author

W. Scott Wells

Defended in

2020

PhD defended at

University of British Columbia

Specialisation

Humanities

Region

East Asia
South Korea
North Korea
Japan
China

Theme

Literature
Linguistics
History
Education